Indonesian Muslims wearing masks and maintaining social distance perform Friday prayer at the At-Tin Grand Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 5, 2020. (Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Battle for the Soul of Islam

James M. Dorsey   |  October 28, 2020

Note: What follows are excerpts from Dr. James Dorsey’s article. The full text of the article may be read here.

[T]he world’s Muslim powerhouses. . . are engaged in a deepening religious soft power struggle for geopolitical influence and dominance.

This battle for the soul of Islam pits rival Middle Eastern and Asian powers against one another: Turkey, seat of the Islamic world’s last true caliphate; Saudi Arabia, home to the faith’s holy cities; the United Arab Emirates, propagator of a militantly statist interpretation of Islam; Qatar with its less strict version of Wahhabism and penchant for political Islam; Indonesia, promoting a humanitarian, pluralistic notion of Islam that reaches out to other faiths as well as non-Muslim centre-right forces across the globe; Morocco which uses religion as a way to position itself as the face of moderate Islam; and Shia Iran with its derailed revolution.

As the battle for religious soft power between rival states has intensified, the lines dividing the state and religion have become ever more blurred, particularly in more autocratic countries. This struggle has and will affect the prospects for the emergence of a truly more tolerant and pluralistic interpretation of one of the three Abrahamic religions.

An Ever More Complex Battle

If the first phase of the battle for the soul of Islam was defined by the largely uncontested Saudi religious soft power campaign, and the second phase began with the emergence of revolutionary Iran, the third and most recent phase is the most complex one, not only because of the arrival on the scene of new players but also because it entails rivalries within rivalries.

The new players are first and foremost the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar, and Indonesia. Their entry into the fray has further blurred the dividing lines between purely religious and cultural soft power, nationalism, and the struggle within Muslim societies over values, including various freedoms, rights, and preferred political systems.

The third phase is complicated by the fact that all of the players with the exception of Indonesia have embraced Iran’s model of coupling religious soft power with hard power and the use of proxies to advance their respective agendas. This is apparent in the Saudi-UAE-led war to counter Iran in Yemen; Emirati, Egyptian and Turkish support for opposing sides in Libya’s civil war; and Turkish and Gulf state involvement in Syria.

Egyptian President President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center) pray at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo

The resurgence of political Islam as a result of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, fuelled the worst fears of men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed [bin Salman], Egyptian General-turned President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The upheaval also created an opportunity for the UAE, a country that prides itself on being a cutting-edge, cosmopolitan home to people from some 190 countries. . . Despite ruling at home with an iron fist, Bin Zayed has been able to promote a state-controlled Islam that styles itself as tolerant and apolitical and preaches obedience to established rulers without addressing outdated or intolerant concepts embedded in the faith such as the notion of kafirs or infidels, slavery, and Muslim supremacy that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life.

Creating the UAE’s Religious Ecosystem

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed greets Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi

[Usaama] Al-Azami [an Islamic scholar] argues that the UAE’s financial and political clout rather than intellectual argument will decide to what degree the Emirates succeed in their religious soft power campaign.

“The counter‐revolutionary Islamic political thought that is being developed and promoted by Bin Bayyah and the UAE suffers from certain fundamental structural problems that means its very existence is precariously predicated on the persistence of autocratic patronage. Its lack of independence means that it is not the organic product of a relatively unencumbered engagement with political modernity that might be possible in freer societies than counter‐revolutionary Gulf autocracies,” Al-Azami wrote.

Yahya Birt, a British Muslim scholar of UAE-supported clerics, argues that their need to project their sponsors at times is at odds with reality on the ground. “The extracted price of government patronage is high for ulema in the Middle East. Generally speaking, they have to openly support or maintain silence about autocracy at home, while speaking of democracy, pluralism, and minority rights to Western audiences,” Birt said.

“What does this mean for the soft power dimension of the UAE with projects such as the Forum for Promoting Peace? On the face of it the Forum seems benign enough: promoting ideas of peace, minority rights and citizenship in the Arab and Muslim world, but at what price? Any criticism of the UAE’s human rights violations…seems impossible,” Birt went on to say.

Longing For Past Imperial Glory

Sultan Mehmet II triumphally enters Constantinople in 1453 (Benjamin Constant)

Slick public relations packaging is what gives the UAE an edge in its rivalry with both Saudi Wahhabism as well as with Qatar and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is hobbled by the image of an austere, ultra-conservative and secretive kingdom that it is trying to shed and a badly tarnished human rights record magnified by hubris and a perceived sense of entitlement. For its part, Turkey’s religious soft power drive has a raw nationalist edge to it that raises the spectre of a longing for past imperial glory.

Erdogan underlined the importance of religious soft power in his geopolitical strategy by granting his Religious Affairs Department or Diyanet a key role in foreign and aid policy. Established by Ataturk in 1924 to propagate a statist, moderate form of Islam that endorsed secularism, Erdogan infused the directorate with his version of political Islam.

Erdogan harnessed the Diyanet to legitimize his military escapades in Syria, Libya, and Iraq in much the same way that Iran and now the UAE blends hard power with religious soft power. . . Turkey has sought to bolster its bid for religious soft power by positioning itself alongside Malaysia as the champion of the rights of embattled Muslim communities like Myanmar’s Rohingya. Turkey’s claim to be the defender of the Muslim underdog is however called into question by its refusal, with few caveats, to criticize the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s northwestern “autonomous region” of Xinjiang.

The New Kid on the Block

Nahdlatul Ulama founder Hadratusy Syaikh KH. Hasyim Asy’ari

Indonesia, the new kid on the block in the competition for Muslim religious soft power and leadership, has proven to be a different kettle of fish. Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, rather than the government of President Joko Widodo, has emerged as a formidable contender, one that is capable of operating on the same level as the states with which it competes.

As a result, the Indonesian state takes a back seat in the global competition among Muslims. It benefits from its close ties to Nahdlatul Ulama as well as the movement’s ability to gain access to the corridors of power in world capitals, including Washington, London, Berlin, Budapest, the Vatican, and Delhi. Nahdlatul Ulama was instrumental in organizing a visit to Indonesia in 2020 by Pope Francis that had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The movement also forged close working ties to Muslim grassroots communities in various parts of the world as well as prominent Jewish and Christian groups. Nahdlatul Ulama’s growing international influence and access was enabled by its embrace in 2015 of a concept of “Nusantara (archipelago) Islam” or “humanitarian Islam” that recognized the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The movement has also gone beyond paying lip service to notions of tolerance and pluralism with the issuance of fatwas intended to re-contextualize the faith by eliminating categories like infidels.

NU General Secretary K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf with Pope Francis at the Papal Residence in Rome

Nahdlatul Ulama’s evolution towards a process of re-contextualization of Islam dates back to a 1992 gathering of religious scholars chaired by Abdurrahman Wahid, the group’s leader at the time and later president of Indonesia. The gathering noted that “the changing context of reality necessitates the creation of new interpretations of Islamic law and orthodox Islamic teaching.”

Speaking to a German newspaper 25 years later, Nahdlatul Ulama General Secretary Yahya Cholil Staquf laid out the fundamental dividing line between his group’s notion of a moderate Islam and that of Indonesia’s rivals without identifying them by name. Asked what Islamic concepts were problematic, Staquf said: “The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, the relationship of Muslims with the state, and Muslims’ relationship to the prevailing legal system wherever they live . . . Within the classical tradition, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is assumed to be one of segregation and enmity. . . In today’s world such a doctrine is unreasonable. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this view of Islam, it renders them incapable of living harmoniously and peacefully within the multi-cultural, multi-religious societies of the 21st century.”

Widodo initially hoped that Nahdlatul Ulama’s manifesto on humanitarian Islam would empower his government to position Indonesia as the beacon of a moderate interpretation of the faith. Speaking at the laying of the ground stone of the International Islamic University (UIII) in West Java, Widodo laid down a gauntlet for his competitors in the Middle East by declaring that it was “natural and fitting that Indonesia should become the (authoritative) reference for the progress of Islamic civilization.”

President Joko Widodo receives an honorary plaque engraved with the Nusantara Statement in 2018. Adopted by Nahdlatul Ulama and its 5-million-member young adults movement Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, the Statement calls “upon people of goodwill of every faith and nation to join in building a global consensus to prevent the political weaponization of Islam”

Widodo saw the university as providing an alternative to the Islamic University of Medina, that has played a key role in Saudi Arabia’s religious soft power campaign, and the centuries-old Al Azhar in Cairo, that is influenced by financially-backed Saudi scholars and scholarship as well as Emirati funding. The university is “a promising step to introduce Indonesia as the global epicenter for ‘moderate’ Islam’,” said Islamic philosophy scholar Amin Abdullah.

Saudi and Emirati concerns that Indonesia could emerge as a serious religious soft power competitor were initially assuaged when Widodo’s aspirations were thwarted by critics within his administration. A six-page proposal to enhance Indonesian religious soft power globally put forward in 2016 by Nahdlatul Ulama at the request of Pratikno, Widodo’s minister responsible for providing administrative support for his initiatives, was buried after the foreign ministry warned that its adoption would damage relations with the Gulf states.

That could have been the end of the story. But neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE anticipated Nahdlatul Ulama’s determination to push its concept of humanitarian Islam globally, including at the highest levels of government in western capitals as well as in countries like India. Nor did they anticipate Mr. Widodo’s willingness to play both ends against the middle by supporting Nahdlatul Ulama’s campaign while engaging on religious issues with both the Saudis and the Emiratis.

The degree to which Nahdlatul Ulama is perceived as a threat by the UAE and Saudi Arabia is evident in battles in high level inter-faith meetings convened by the Vatican, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and others over principles like endorsement of the UN human rights declaration.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s rise to prominence was also what persuaded Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, to visit the Indonesian group’s headquarters in Jakarta in early 2020. It was the first visit to one of the world’s foremost Islamic organizations in the League’s almost 60-year history. The visit allowed him to portray himself as in dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama in his inter-faith contacts as well as in conversation with Western officials and other influential interlocutors.

Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al Issa (center) with KH. Said Aqil Siradj, Chairman of the NU Executive Board (center right) and KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf (center left) at NU’s headquarters in Jakarta, photo courtesy of Tempo magazine

Al-Issa had turned down an opportunity to meet two years earlier when a leading Nahdlatul Ulama cleric and he were both in Mecca at the same time. He told a Western interlocutor who was attempting to arrange a meeting that he had “never heard” of the Indonesian scholar and could not make time “due to an extremely previous busy schedule of meetings with international Islamic personalities” that included “moderate influential figures from Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Russia and Kazakhstan.”

Saudi Arabia was forced several months later in the run-up to the 2019 Indonesian presidential election to replace its ambassador in Jakarta, Osama bin Mohammed Abdullah Al Shuaib. The ambassador had denounced in a tweet—that has since been deleted—Ansor, the Nahdlatul Ulama young adults organization, as heretical and he had supported an anti-government demonstration.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to compete is further evidenced by its increasingly influential role in Centrist Democrat International or CDI, the world’s largest alliance of political parties, that grew out of European and Latin American Christian Democratic movements. Membership in CDI of the National Awakening or PKB, the political party of Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably gives it a leg up in the soft power competition with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which both ban political parties. Meantime, the PKB is far more pluralistic than Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

CDI’s executive committee met in the Javan city of Yogyakarta in January 2020. Participants included prominent Latin American leaders and former heads of state, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and Elmar Brock, a close associate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

PKB Chairman H. Muhaimin Iskandar accompanies CDI/EPP Secretary General Antonio López-Istúriz White and CDI President Andrés Pastrana Arango as they enter the assembly hall of Pondok Pesantren Sunan Pandanaran, amid students waving Indonesian, PKB and IDC/CDI flags

Nahdlatul Ulama’s sway was apparent in CDI’s adoption of a resolution that called for adherence to universal ethics and humanitarian values based on Western humanism, Christian democracy, and Humanitarian Islam. The resolution urged resistance to “the emergence of authoritarian, civilizationalist states that do not accept the rules-based post-WWII order, whether in terms of human rights, rule of law, democracy or respect for international borders and the sovereignty of other nations.”

Nahdlatul Ulama benefits from what journalist Muhammad Abu Fadil described as rejection of an “Arab face of Islam” that in his words was “hopelessly contorted by extremism” in Western perceptions. Abu Fadil suggested that “certain elements in the West have become interested in ‘Asian Islam,’ which appears to be more moderate than Arab Islam; less inclined to export radical ideology; less dominated by extremist interpretations of religion; and possessed of a genuine and sincere tendency to act with tolerance.”

Conclusion

A major battle for Muslim religious soft power that pits Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Indonesia against one another is largely about enhancing countries’ global and regional influence. This battle has little to do with implementing notions of a moderate Islam in theory or practice despite claims by the various rivals, most of which are authoritarian states with little regard for human and minority rights or fundamental freedoms.

Muslim-majority Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, is the odd-man out. A traditionalist and in many ways conservative organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, has garnered international respect and recognition with its embrace of a Humanitarian Islam that recognizes the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles enshrined in it and has taken tangible steps to address Islamic concepts that it considers outdated. In doing so, Nahdlatul Ulama has emerged as a formidable challenger to powerful state actors in the battle for the soul of Islam. But it still faces the challenge of overcoming the Arab view, expressed by Abdullah I of Jordan after the end of caliphate, that Muslim leadership must somehow return to the Arabs.

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